Swan song for ‘American Idol’ after 15 game-changing years

January 5, 2016 5:17 pm

 Pop singer Kelly Clarkson won the first American Idol in 2002.

It started on June 11, 2002, with a couple of unfamiliar hosts
posing in an empty theatre and making an overblown declaration to TV
viewers.
“Live on this stage, an unknown talent will be launched into superstardom,” said Brian Dunkleman.
“You at home decide who will become the next American idol,” intoned Ryan Seacrest.
The reasonable reaction: uh-huh, sure. But it turned out the two were underselling Fox’s American Idol.
The
singing contest, which begins its 15th and final season on Wednesday,
was a blockbuster that invigorated its network. It made stars of Kelly
Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and others, and resurrected
the TV talent show as a boom industry that includes NBC’s The Voice and ABC’s Dancing with the Stars.
“It
not only was a huge success for Fox but impacted everyone else,” said
Bill Carroll, media analyst with Katz Television Group.

“It once again underscored the fact that broadcast television is communal and an event.”
American Idol, from megaproducer Simon Fuller and based on his British hit Pop Idol,
did even more. It breathed life into the music industry as it and
network TV both grappled with technology-driven changes in consumer
habits.
The show’s end is the result of dwindling ratings, the inevitable fate of even durable performers. Idol,
which averaged more than 30 million weekly viewers at its 2006 peak and
ranked No. 1 for nine consecutive years, averaged about 11 million last
season (still enough by today’s standards to land it in the top 20, but
with fewer advertiser-favoured younger viewers).
Whatever its
change in fortunes, the series will get a send-off worthy of a
television landmark, said executive producer Trish Kinane.
As she
sees it, that means paying tribute to its past while focusing on the
battle among this year’s contestants to become the last Idol winner.

The pop phenomenon that is American Idol comes to an end this week. Pictured are original judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. Photo / Supplied
The pop phenomenon that is American
Idol comes to an end this week. Pictured are original judges Randy
Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell. Photo / Supplied
“It’s that tricky thing of, ‘Hey, it’s the 15th
season, let’s do nostalgia, let’s look back at the show’s really rich
history,'” Kinane said. “But on the other hand, you’ve got to find an
amazing American Idol. So we’re trying to combine both of those things.”
To
accomplish that “organically”, she said, past winners and familiar
runners-up will be sprinkled throughout the season, starting with the
open auditions in which Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Taylor Hicks and
others were on hand to share tips with the hopefuls.
Plans also
call for duets pairing contestants with their now-famous predecessors,
who “all want to be involved, somehow”, Kinane said.
A famous
non-Idol, Kanye West, made a surprise appearance at the judges’
auditions in San Francisco in September, with wife Kim Kardashian West
along as his cheerleader. His “tryout” is included in Wednesday’s
episode.
The season debut is a four-hour, two-night affair,
airing from 8-10pm, EST Wednesday and Thursday and opening on a
retrospective note with the Seacrest-Dunkleman ’02 clip.
One
contestant featured in the premiere demonstrates the show’s impressive
hold on its fans. Michelle Marie Lecza of Daytona Beach, Florida,
recalls watching it as a 4-year-old and can recite all of the winners,
in order.
American Idol is what I based my life off of. I
am going to walk into the audition room and go get my dream,” the
braces-wearing 15-year-old says.
Such fervour made American Idol a well-timed hit. With social media gaining steam, viewers wanted to get in on the real-time conversation about Idol,
good for networks selling commercial airtime and the sponsors who
wanted their ads to be seen, not skipped as the show was replayed on a
DVR.
The live Idol episodes increased that appetite and
launched the networks’ embrace of a variety of other live broadcasts
that included NBC’s musicals The Sound of Music and The Wiz.
It was a salve as well for the music business: in 2009, Steve Knopper, author of Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, called American Idol
and its robust digital sales one of the few bright spots for the
industry as consumers grew increasingly resistant to shelling out for
albums.
The series became such an impressive promotional platform
that established artists including Steven Tyler, Mariah Carey and
Prince dropped in as panelists, mentors and performers.
So did Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban, returning for their third year together as judges to usher Idol
to its conclusion. They’re joined by the savvy, unflappable Seacrest,
the show’s on-camera linchpin who outlasted fellow original cast members
Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson (and Dunkleman, who was
one-and-done).
Urban said he’s focused less on the show’s farewell than what he calls the “job at hand”.
“I
more often forget it’s the last season until somebody mentions it,” the
country music star said during a production break at the Dolby Theatre.
“It’s just finding the right person and making sure we don’t miss
somebody.”
He said the show retains its power to jump-start a
beginning career. For the farewell season, about 75,000 people swarmed
to auditions in Atlanta; Denver; Philadelphia and Little Rock, Arkansas,
in addition to San Francisco.
“I love the fact that these guys and girls still see the potency and potential of something like Idol to take them to places really, really quickly,” Urban said.
It would be ideal if the final season produces another American Idol pop superstar, Connick said.
The
show “has had a lot of hits, had a lot of misses. I would love to see
somebody come out and put a bookend on what Kelly Clarkson did the first
year, which is to sell a ton of records, sell a lot of concert tickets
and became a household name,” the jazz musician said.
“That would be a great way to end it,” he said.

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